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Forum exec says staff has been working ‘around the clock’ to ready for UFC 232

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES — Getting a venue ready for a large-scale combat sports event is hard enough. Now add in doing it on a week’s notice — during Christmas week.

That’s what staff at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., is up against right now, as they prepare the arena and all that comes with it for UFC 232 on Saturday.

“There’s a lot of elements that have to come together and have to coordinate in a short amount of time,” Rick Merrill, The Forum’s vice president of operations, told MMA Fighting on Thursday.

The UFC 232 card was initially scheduled for the same day at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, but was uprooted officially Sunday because the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) would not license Jon Jones to fight Alexander Gustafsson on that date due to an adverse drug-test finding.

Rather than postpone the main event pending an NAC hearing, the UFC took the show on the road, taking the entire event to the Los Angeles area. Tickets at T-Mobile Arena were refunded and new tickets went on sale Wednesday at The Forum. That, Merrill said, was one of the most difficult things about the undertaking.

“I think the most difficult process was for our box office,” Merrill said. “Obviously, what do you do with the tickets that were sold at T-Mobile and what happens with our arena? They don’t match up, obviously, seat wise. Our box office had to build the shell and I know John [Valenzuela], our box office manager, I think he said he was up until 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve building the shell alone and trying to coordinate how pre-sales were gonna work.”

Merrill said the wheels started being put in motion for UFC 232 at The Forum last Saturday night. He said the arena had a Travis Scott concert Dec. 20 and many staff members thought they would have a holiday break after that until Ozzfest on Dec. 31. So, there was scrambling to be done to get everyone back, including people who left town.

Forum production manager Jake Goldman had to build the shell layout of the seats, where the cage will be, the configuration of the arena, the camera holds and needs for the media, Merrill said. Then, they had to find stagehands from the Local 33 union and their own in-house laborers to start working on the ground.

“Everyone being out on holiday, we had to start putting out feelers and see who was available and who was able to come back and get going,” Merrill said. “That also included our food and beverage staff. They needed product, because we had ordered for New Year’s, not anticipating an event. So F&B had to get involved. Merchandisers, we had to wrangle them and find out what’s happening with them, as well as our parking staff, security, ushers, marketing. What marketing needs we could help out with internally. … Our publicist, sponsor activations. There’s a lot of elements that have to come together and have to coordinate in a short amount of time.”

Merrill said he was on site Thursday and walk throughs have been going on all week with security and other departments, including the ones run by event coordinator Chelsea Paulsen and event booker Geni Lincoln. On Thursday, the sound, lighting, video and power were loaded into The Forum. The cage will go in, seats will be laid out and the camera holds will be in place Friday, Merrill said.

Merrill said Forum and UFC officials are working “hand in hand” to get everything set in time for the ceremonial weigh-ins Friday and the fights Saturday afternoon.

“They’re pretty much working around the clock to get everything together and get the building ready to go,” he said. “I think it’s just the relationship the two companies have and working together to pull it off.”

The whole process has not been easy, Merrill said, and it’s been compounded by the holidays. But he said he’s proud about the way the staff has come together.

“I think there’s always a strain on a short-notice kind of thing,” he said. “Usually when an event was confirmed, you have months or several weeks to plan it out and have lots of meetings and things. Fortunately, we’re done fights in the past and we have a big one coming up Jan. 26. We have the greatest of all-time heavyweight (Fedor Emelianenko), we have Bellator 214 coming in. So we’re kind of prepared for it. Unfortunately, we’re not prepared for the holiday that interferes with the normal, day-to-day operations. We had just an extremely busy September, October, November, December, so everyone was looking forward to the 10-day break. So there literally were people just escaping LA and planning to be with their families and everything.

“But from the people that I’ve spoken to around the venue today, there’s a lot of excitement about the fight coming here. So I don’t see anybody that’s really miserable. It’s an opportunity for everybody in the building. I think everybody is excited to do it.”

After UFC 232, The Forum staff will then have to adjust for Ozzfest — which includes an outdoor village — on Monday night, New Year’s Eve. The beat goes on for a busy arena during the holidays.

“It’s a scramble for everybody,” Merrill said. “So I think it’s great when you see something like that in a short amount of time, it makes a person like me in this position proud. That all these elements and people can make these things happen and be successful at it and hopefully it’ll be a successful event.”

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